Identification of a decedent in a 103-year-old homicide case using forensic anthropology and genetic genealogy

Abstract

Anthropologists are often the custodians of long-term unidentified human remains though their positions as curators of university or museum skeletal collections. Various factors decrease the solvability of these legacy cases including the passage of time, the loss of provenience for specific cases, and lack of documentation or case records. While anthropologists can contribute important information toward identification, it is often necessary to explore novel and cross-disciplinary strategies to resolve difficult cold cases. In long cold cases, the postmortem interval, in particular, may be difficult to estimate leading to further challenges in achieving identification. Modern advances in radiocarbon bomb pulse dating, isotope analysis, and actualistic studies have contributed to positive identification of unidentified human remains in some legacy cases, but may not be available to all forensic practitioners and law enforcement from resource-poor agencies. Pooling resources, as well as collaborating with professionals outside of forensic anthropology, is a useful strategy to pursue when anthropological methods are exhausted.The case study presented here demonstrates a collaborative approach between forensic anthropologists, forensic genetic genealogists, and law enforcement in a century-old homicide. The dismembered and mummified parts of a male body were recovered in a remote cave in 1979 and again in 1991. Despite forensic anthropologists creating and updating the biological profile over the decades from recovery to present, no identification was made until the application of forensic genetic genealogy (FGG) to the case in 2019. New interpretations of bone microstructure and trauma analysis are presented for the case, alongside the historical documentation and “proof of life” evidence used by the genealogy team. A review of the FGG methods underscores the challenges in this case (e.g. significant endogamy, multiple aliases used by the victim) and the steps taken toward resolution. Ultimately, a combined anthropology and genealogy approach resulted in a confirmed identity for a man who was murdered in 1916.Key points Forensic scientists should leverage a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach toward human identification. When combined with forensic anthropology methods, forensic genetic genealogy is a valuable tool linking biological and cultural-historical aspects of identity. Forensic anthropologists should review challenging cases in their labs as new methods are introduced and new resources become available.

Description

© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Taylor & Francis Group on behalf of the Academy of Forensic Science. cc-by

Keywords

cold case, forensic genetic genealogy, Forensic sciences; forensic anthropology, human identification, investigative genetic genealogy, postmortem interval, skeletal trauma

Citation

Michael, A.R., Blatt, S.H., Isa, M., Redgrave, A., & Ubelaker, D.H.. 2022. Identification of a decedent in a 103-year-old homicide case using forensic anthropology and genetic genealogy. Forensic Sciences Research, 7(3). https://doi.org/10.1080/20961790.2022.2034717

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